Ho Chi Minh City
 

Ah, Saigon. 

We’d heard mixed things about this city - some describe it as a chaotic land of dangerous traffic, weird smells, and borderline intolerable humidity. Others prefer to think of it as…well, actually, everyone describes it the same way. It is chaotic. The traffic is dangerous. There are weird smells everywhere and the air is thick with humidity at all hours. These are facts. In my opinion the only difference between people who like Saigon and those who don’t is a difference in personal preference. See, some people could come here and find the insanity overwhelming, but there are others who happily throw themselves into the chaos. I’m happy to report that we are part of the latter group. 

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Tan Dinh Church, Saigon's infamous pink cathedral and one of the coolest structures in town.

Tan Dinh Church, Saigon's infamous pink cathedral and one of the coolest structures in town.

I gotta be honest, though. While the city has SO MUCH to offer a normal traveler, I think I can count the number of ‘activities’ we did during our eight night stay] on one hand. I won’t apologize for it. We’d just wrapped up a marathon 25-day journey through Vietnam, and it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. It was wonderful, yes, but riding a motorbike for up to eight hours a day requires a tremendous amount of mental and physical energy, and doing it in a very foreign country with a high language barrier and a lot of unfamiliar stressors made it even more challenging. By the end we were totally, completely drained. We didn’t wanna move, or think, or try very hard to do anything, because we had totally depleted our mental and physical will to be good backpackers. 

All of this is just to say that basically the only thing we did with any real gusto in Saigon was eat. And boy, did we ever do that. Obviously Vietnam’s largest city is renowned for its incredible food culture, and the local cuisine here is among the best in the world. Everybody knows that. What people might not realize, however, is that it’s not just Vietnamese food that’s good here. It’s all kinds of stuff: Indian, Italian, Mediterranean, even a good old American-style DELI! Yes. A deli. You can get a club sandwich. And it’s good! This city is amazing. 

Therefore, this food guide is going to be a little different than your typical list of the best local joints to try. Instead, I present to you the Lazy Homesick Backpacker’s Food Tour of Saigon. I hope you enjoy reading about our meals as much as we loved eating them. 

First up is the local food. Obviously Saigon has good Vietnamese food - that’s just a given. We had incredible, and incredibly overstuffed, banh mis at Huynh Hoa Bakery. There’s no customization - you just show up and tell them how many, and they fill the baguettes with all kinds of meats and pate and fresh veggies, and the result is a delicious and very filling explosion of flavors. Banh Mi 37 Nguyen Trai is also good for banh mi thit nuong (grilled pork). Even though bun cha is a Hanoi thing, it can be found here and we enjoyed our meal at Bun Cha 145 Bui Vien even though it was right on the backpacker street and thus fairly touristy.

For a fancy meal out, we enjoyed Hum Vegetarian. Although pricier than your average Vietnamese restaurant it was still affordable and the atmosphere was relaxed yet upscale. The food was fresh and flavorful, and beautifully presented. But our favorite Vietnamese restaurant by far was Bep Me In, tucked down a little alleyway near Ben Thanh Market. It’s small inside but serves beautifully presented and delicious local food. The fried tofu here is seriously the best we’ve ever eaten. It’s soft and creamy and almost cheese-like, and I think we got it 4 times during our 8 days in town. 

Uncle Ho!

Uncle Ho!

For international fare, there are more options here than you could ever hope to visit. We loved King Kebabs for a quick meal - the spicy sauce they use is incredible. Nonla Guys is a hybrid Vietnamese-Korean-Mexican place that does seriously delicious bowls and quesadillas. The combination of cuisines seems random, but trust me, it really works. Also, for some reason, poké bowls have really taken off here and we loved the customizable options at Poke Saigon

Hands down our favorite Western restaurant in town was Journeys Sandwich Cafe, which was located just a couple blocks from our hostel in the heart of Ben Thanh Market. It’s an authentic sandwich shop with a Vietnamese twist - they have a few banh mi options, and you can get any of the dozen or so sandwiches on the menu made with a local baguette or a couple other fresh-baked bread options. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to have a true American style deli sandwich thousands of miles from home. We ate here four or five times during our stay (we’re creatures of habit) and it’s not the cheapest meal in town, but for flavor, quality, and the joy that comes with eating a good sandwich, it was completely worth it. Bonus: the coffee is amazing too! 

You can't really tell from the picture, but I was practically sprinting to the cafe on the corner because I was desperate for some air-con; it was probably 105 degrees at this point.

You can't really tell from the picture, but I was practically sprinting to the cafe on the corner because I was desperate for some air-con; it was probably 105 degrees at this point.

Speaking of coffee, I would be remiss if I didn’t sing the praises of Saigon’s cafe scene. There seem to be at least two or three cafes on every block here, and everything from classic holes-in-the-wall serving local ca phe sua to trendy cafes catering exclusively to hipsters. Even our hostel had a cafe! This city is fueled by caffeine and we love it. I genuinely don’t think it’s possible to go wrong with any coffee shop in town, and the places with the really tiny chairs and tons of locals huddled around short tables tend to be the best. For a more ‘western’ experience we found ourselves partial to Fairy Coffee because it was inexpensive and close to our hostel, with strong wifi and air-con. We got a lot of work done there! 

Eating was, like, 90 percent of what we did in Saigon, but it wasn’t everything. There are plenty of tourist attractions in the area, and like Hanoi in the north, Ho Chi Minh City is a great jumping-off point for touring sites in the surrounding provinces. Also like in Hanoi, it’s easy to book a day tour through one of the literally hundreds of tour operators who have offices in the city. 

We opted for a day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, a vast underground network used by Vietnamese troops during the war. My best advice for doing this tour is to select an operator who offers small-group tours. Ours consisted of about 10 people and we were transported in a comfortable air-conditioned van, but we saw some other groups that were huge and everyone looked pretty miserable. Keep in mind that southern Vietnam is pretty much always hot, and the entire tour takes place outdoors, so be prepared for that. 

Alex braving the tight squeeze at the Cu Chi Tunnels. I wasn't bold enough to try my luck.

Alex braving the tight squeeze at the Cu Chi Tunnels. I wasn't bold enough to try my luck.

Sadly, we didn’t have a chance to visit the Mekong Delta, which is the other big tourist draw in the south. We’d originally planned to visit the area on our motorbike instead of going with an organized tour (to allow us more freedom and flexibility) but it turned out to be just a bit too far for a day trip and we’d already paid our accommodation in full so we couldn’t spare a night. From the research we did, we learned that the area can be annoyingly touristy and, quite like Ha Long Bay up north, you want to make sure you choose the right tour company to ensure a positive experience. 

We also spent some time exploring the sights within the city. It’s ridiculously hot pretty much year-round here, but in spite of that we actually enjoyed strolling around, dodging into cafes to escape the heat if it became too much. We also heavily utilized Grab and Uber to get around once we got rid of the bike. Because the traffic here is crazy and drivers are daredevils, a motorbike will get you from Point A to Point B much faster than a car,. Alex and I would each book separate Grab Moto rides. The driver provides you with a helmet and you just put it on, hop on back, and hold on for a wild ride!

One thing that surprised me in Saigon was the abundance of incredible churches spread across town. The most famous one is the Tan Dinh Church aka the Pink Church. When we visited, it was unfortunately closed to visitors but we were still able to snap photos of the amazing facade. Saigon also has its own Notre Dame Cathedral that looks quite a bit like the one in Paris, except that it’s made of red brick! This church is located next to the old Central Post Office which is another beautiful architectural structure worth checking out. 

 
Notre Dame de Saigon. Wait, what?

Notre Dame de Saigon. Wait, what?

 

At the time of our visit in early April, we found lodging costs for private rooms in Saigon to be high relative to the rest of Vietnam - it’s the biggest city in the country, so everything is more expensive! We specifically knew we wanted to stay in a hostel after our positive experience in Hanoi, so we didn’t even look at hotels (though I’m sure there are inexpensive small hotels available for a reasonable price). 

We ultimately settled on Prei Nokor Hostel, a relatively new place located just across the street from Ben Thanh Market. We stayed in a 12-bed dorm, but each bed has its own cubby area with a storage box/shelf, reading light, and curtain. It was actually fantastic and we got quality sleep despite being in a room with 10 other people. It helped that the room had air-con - I don’t think I would have survived the heat without being able to retreat to a nice cool room at the end of the day. Because the hostel is so new, they’re still getting some of the kinks worked out and sometimes the staff mixed up beds or forgot to accommodate small requests, but any issues we had were quickly resolved. If you’re not interested on a tight hostel budget, there are zillions of beautiful boutique hotels available on Agoda.

The hostel’s location was perfect for our needs. In addition to being close to the market, it was also within walking distance of Bui Ven Street which is the main backpacker going out area, with lots of bars, restaurants, shops, and good people watching. A lot of restaurants set up tiny tables a la Hanoi after dark, but a lot of places will only let you sit in them if you order both food and drink, which we found mildly annoying as we usually wanted to sit and people-watch after we’d already eaten dinner. 

Overall, Saigon is a polarizing city, and everyone I’ve met who has visited either loves it or hates it. We’re definitely in the pro-HCMC group, although I can see how the insanity would get old after a while. But no trip to Vietnam is complete without spending at least a few days in the nation’s largest city, sampling the amazing variety of food on offer, and getting lost in the crazy streets for a while.